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Bringing the soul (and hope): Old school gospel group uses its power to change lives in Houston

The Soul Influence
The Soul Influence represents one of three faith-based music traditions that will be featured in "Voices of the Spirit IV." The Soul Influence/Facebook
The Soul Influence
Marcus Barnum, from left, Donnis Lemon, Arzell Draine, Robert Melton III and Lawrence Brown. Photo by Mars Varela
Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife + Traditional Arts Program presents "Voices of the Spirit IV"
Buddhist chants by nuns and members of the Chung Mei Temple will also be featured in the concert. Courtesy of International Buddhist Progress Society
Pandit Suman Ghosh
Pandit Suman Ghosh will perform traditional Hindustani ragas. Photo by Mars Varela

The Bard of Avalon was right in tune when he wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on." Although the verse of Twelfth Night appears in reference to romantic courtship, Shakespeare's words taken out of context deepen the possible interpretations of music's ethos and what it can do for the human spirit.

You won't find music for music's sake in The Soul Influence's repertoire. This brotherhood of five kind, energetic and warm gents finds its strength in a capella harmonies that aren't only beautifully reverberant. The old school gospel quintet — although technically speaking The Soul Influence is a quartet as defined by the number of voice parts — considers a performance successful if listeners are inspired to become better people.

The Soul Influence, which is based out of the Fifth Ward Church of Christ on Stonewall Street, represents one of three faith-based music traditions that will be featured in "Voices of the Spirit IV," a concert series organized by Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife + Traditional Arts Program, an initiative helmed by director Pat Jasper. Jasper surveys Houston in search for cultural jewels in what the mainstream may consider to be hidden communities.

The performances, set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Asia Society Texas Center, also spotlights Buddhist chants sung by nuns and members of the Chung Mei Temple in Stafford and Hindustani classical music performed by Pandit Suman Ghosh.

"In my opinion, I believe singing has the power to change lives, music has the power to motivate and encourage," Robert Melton III tells CultureMap in a video interview (watch above) during a Soul Influence rehearsal. "I always try to keep in mind that someone in the audience is dealing with some kind of issue, some kind of pain, somebody in the big crowd is having problems with their job.

 "I started singing when I came out of the womb. I cried a note."

"For the few moments that I'm on stage, I want to take their mind off of that."

Melton describes himself as a furniture mover by day, a singer by night. His colleagues, most of them cousins, also share similar alter egos. Donnis Lemon works as a grounds keeper at Texas Southern University, Arzell Draine teaches communication at North Shore Senior High School in Galena Park and Marcus Barnum is a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors. Alongside the fifth member of the group, Lawrence Brown, they all consider themselves to be traditional vocalists whose journey with music began at home as part of family gatherings and celebrations.

"I started singing when I came out of the womb," Melton jokes. "I cried a note."

Barnum's mother was a natural soprano with a moving voice, the kind of singer who isn't common place nowadays, he says. She instilled in him a love and a discipline for singing at a young age.

"She had one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard," Barnum says. "She drilled singing in me. I'm talking about getting up at five in the morning to go over songs. No instruments. Only the instrument that we are born with. All instruments are derived from the voice. I believe that's God's instrument and we have to be able to own it."

Lemon, whose father was a bass in his own gospel group, says he inherited the low tessitura vocals as a birthright.

"I don't do a lot of snares or pops, you know, I can actually sing bass," Lemon adds. "Like my dad."

Many of The Soul Influence's performances are held as part of religious services, although some of the more significant memories took place outside of the walls of the church. When Barnum's mother was undergoing cancer treatment, the ensemble sung for her at her bedside. It wasn't long before other patients requested their uplifting melodies to ease their road to recovery.

"Just those kinds of moments stick out in my head more so than the big stages and the applauses," Melton says. "This group has been a blessing to me.

"If it were up to me, I'm going to sing until I'm 80 years old. This is a good organization to be a part of."

Watch the video (above) for the full interview and to experience The Soul Influence in rehearsal.

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Houston Arts Alliance's Folklife + Traditional Arts Program presents "Voices of the Spirit IV" on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, 3 p.m., at the Asia Society Texas Center. Tickets are $10 and $5 for seniors, students, Houston Arts Alliance members and Asia Society Texas Center members. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 713-496-9901.

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